A Scene from America & Me
Now: This year, this late spring, this lovely day of 1886, I celebrate my 67 years of living in an era as filled for me with joy and love, and my plunging immersion into Life as any I could hope to have. My reason for choosing a larger venue, for wishing more of the public to be included in this, my birthday peroration, is that I’ve had indications – both from my aforementioned mood and from Nature – that my life might end at any moment. I recognize these signs, accept them and confront them. I refuse to believe that they come tinged with any holy divination. Believing as I do in all the Gods that the human mind over the millennia has been capable of creating, you’ll be amazed to know that I am NOT guilty of the greatest human conceit: that whichever God you choose to be your own is therefore exclusively obligated to reciprocate your interest.
I’ll deal with death as with everything else in my life: by embracing it, knowing it close, feeling every inch of it, making it my lover. Be assured that I’ll do all in my power to prevent it from happening here tonight… although wouldn’t that be electrifying drama?
It was Nature that galvanized me to bring about this, our vital meeting. One’s Gods are chosen and encrusted tortuously by one’s hopes; but Nature, ever emanating in infinite variety, simply cannot be denied. Last August, in my adopted town of Camden, New Jersey, a cyclone tore through close to my house on Mickle Street. I’d bought it barely a year before, the only house I’ve ever owned. The sky went suddenly black, and the whirling force of the twistering wind – some called it a “tournahdo” – cut a path through buildings right nearby, and left them torn and battered down on top of those unfortunate to have been trapped inside. As if that weren’t enough of Nature’s alarums, a giant blinding fireball careered o’erhead, rivaling the sun and moving faster than a comet, only to disappear in those roaring winds that blew the clouds to shreds, giving way to sickly light sifting through thick dust and cries of the survivors. I could hear them, I, cowering in terror and confusion in my rocking chair, unable to use my stick to move — as if some safety even existed had the phenomena chosen Mickle Street, and thus, in the instant, snuffed out my possibility to understand: the warning.
In an instant, that wild wind and fire made clear to me that my dedication to my book’s revelation had fallen into the languid torpor of petty fame. In spite of all my endless, exhausting efforts to seize the public by its unwilling throat, I had fluffed it. My book, that is as much Me as what you see standing here before you, a book that is about the people themselves, about America, I was allowing to slip away without reaching enough of you, cramming every American life with those gluts of truth that allow your very survival! At my age, I have no time to retire, a synonym for dying!
In spite of the ever-expanding editions of the book thus far, in spite of my recent, lame, pathetic “myth,” in spite of the book being banned in Boston! – it hasn’t reached you, my fellow life-dwellers, with how I came to embrace and penetrate you and the nation, and how I want you and the nation to embrace and penetrate me! I sang it loud in the preface of the first edition of Leaves of Grass back in 1855. You’ve read it, you remember: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” Of course you remember! If not, a friend outside has copies…
After Nature’s clear goading that day, I instantly determined yet again to pursue that national affection. I set forth to arrange for this more-public birthday discourse, one that henceforth I will give to any gathering until I drop, May 31st or no! As it is my birthday, I’m inclined – as much for me as for you – to remember, to reveal, to reevaluate with you – certain incidents that may be the cause of that relentless public resistance. We will move backwards in Time-chunks, to the very creation of my book – as I do incessantly in the dark hours. But I immediately renounce any scholar or critic among you who might decide to regurgitate a tendentious analysis of what is revealed here tonight. Also, I’m allowed to leave out what I choose to leave out. After all, we wish to be remembered,… as we wish to be remembered.
I thus reject the luxury of the cowardly, alibi of age, “But it’s too late in life to reassess! Accept what is!” Never will I! My purpose is still palpable! I feel that once again, Leaves of Grass has been set aside. You must reconsider it. I must examine – tonight – why I haven’t reached you, to convince you that All is One, that your ignoring the rudimentary truth of cosmic unity that my book describes will result in the destruction of the All! Therefore prepare, dearest and beloved public, to have your throat seized!